Studying Social Media inevitably led to a lot of mention of the Social Media platform Second Life. I had previously heard of it on news programs and documentaries, which included stories of individuals meeting, falling in love and marrying, or of individuals investing in Second life establishing businesses and making a comfortable living for their real lives. So with stories like this it is understandable that people like myself saw second life as a computer game rather than a social media platform.
Anyway, after reading quite a number of articles which were referring to second life as a social media platform my curiosity got the better of me and I joined second life to satisfy my curiosity. What I found did not match my expectations at all. There were no thriving businesses, in fact there was no productive activity going on whatsoever. There were however several of other second life users standing around engaging in conversations. These people all seemed to be very friendly and helpful to the beginner. One second lifer took me around the various free shops in order to allow me to customise my avatar, and we engaged in a conversation about very ordinary stuff. The sort of conversation you have with anyone you meet for the first time in real life.
In my second visit I met another ‘newbie’, like myself, who as chance would have it was satisfying his curiosity about second life as a social media as a result of his study into social media in business as part of his degree in business information systems. His response was that this was more that coincidence and that we must have met for a greater purpose, suggesting that we remain in touch in second life for the purpose of establishing our own study group, with him gaining insight of what I was studying in my part of the world, while I could do the same from him in his part of the world. Our conversation made it clear that our degree structures were very different.
On a third visit there seemed to be no one else around. This afforded me the opportunity to simply explore the scenery so to speak. I discovered countless shops for rent, businesses for sale, remains of bars that at some stage in the past may or may not of been thriving establishments. It occurred to me at this point that Second life had been plunged into a very deep depression, with seemingly no end. I eventually stumbled across another avatar and we spoke for a short while. Well actually it would be more accurate to say I interviewed him, as I was really interested to learn what had happened here. He was once a builder in second life and had a thriving building business, but, had given it up as there was no point anymore as now you could get everything for free so no one was paying for a builder, these days he just joined in for the chat.
I was discussing this with my daughter, in real life, who informed me that she had decided to learn about second life via wikipedia. According to wikipedia Second Life had once been a thriving centre of economic opportunity until it found itself running foul of international business and tax laws, forcing it to shut down its commercial aspect. And even had to pay out some second lifers that had invested heavily from their real life funds to establish second life businesses. I will add here that at this point I have not made any attempt to confirm for myself the information given by my daughter, as I have little reason to believe that she would mislead me about what wikipedia has to say.
Over the past few days I have been thinking somewhat about what has happened to second life. Before exploring for myself I can say I would never have appreciated the lost opportunity that second life has become. There are many reasons why I see second life as lost opportunity and I shall explain these.
Firstly as a student of economics one of the first things the economics lecturers informed me of was the total lack of opportunity they had to test their hypothesis. A major hinderance to the testing of economic hypothesis is that they would put the economic well being of real people at potential risk. The best option they had was looking for best historical examples that could be used as an economic analogue for their hypothesis. This of course would often entail using the data of other countries which shared few if any cultural values. So the best efforts of economists to test economic theory could not take into account the irrational behaviour of individuals based on their imperfect knowledge or cultural practises. Both of which can have significant impact on individual behaviours in the course of economic events. Second life could actually have provided a platform to test economic hypothesis in real time and enabling irrational behaviour, culture, and imperfect knowledge to be accounted for.
Then there is the problem that businesses face when they try to expand and enter into other nations. There are many barriers to establishing a business across national borders. Language, culture, tax laws, import restrictions, and politics can all hamper business efforts. There have been many businesses that have failed in these efforts leading to some struggling to survive at all. Once again second life might have provided business with an opportunity to test their expansion models to ensure that they had got it all right before risking their financial capital in the first world.
For others the loss of the commercial element of economic life has simply been the loss of a healthy income stream for their real life. That second life was able to allow individuals to generate an income itself was an achievement. The potential to earn an income has been lost opportunity for the unemployed, disabled, chronically ill, or fundraisers have all been denied a potential stream of revenue for their real lives. A revenue it must be added that would have paid dividends to the real life economies of those nations whose citizens were generating income in second life.
Then there is the social aspect of second life. As each individual entering second life is represented by an avatar it actually does make for an engaging social platform for holding conversations with your peers. It has occurred to me that second life is grossly under utilised for this aspect alone. When I consider the great efforts that students have spent trying to organise a time and place to hold study groups for all its members, second life provides a platform for allowing a virtual study group so that while still requiring a meeting time the place can be wherever you are at the time so long as you have your netbook (or other mobile device) with you. Second life allows you to converse with mics, in group conversations, or one to one. And you can establish groups so that your conversations remain within the group.
Also finally second life would have provided an amazing opportunity to test anthropological theory and human behaviour. Although I still believe that there is the opportunity for the dedicated anthropologist to conduct an amazing cultural study even as second life is now. I believe second life would provide and amazing background for a gripping ethnography that would potentially challenge some very basic assumptions about the human condition. In particular the ontology and epistemologies of anthropological theory.
However, all this is irrelevant because as it is second life it would seem that is set for extinction. Second life has had the basis for its existence removed, and with a lack of any vision for a future it languishes supported by a few that developed relationships within and an attachment to second life before international law dealt second life its death knell. There is plenty of scope for its reinvigoration, however, to do this as a platform it needs some direction and leadership from its creators. They need to see past their initial vision to do this though, because there is still some value to be had from second life.